In the middle of the nineteenth century an entirely new type of Jewish book appeared: an encyclopedia of animals which discussed them in relationship to the Bible and sometimes to the Talmud. No less than five such books were written during this period!
|The title page of Biblische Zoologie|
|Rabbi Dr. Ludwig Lewysohn|
Shalom Yaakov Abramowitsch is most famous as the “grandfather of Yiddish literature,” under the pen-name Mendele Mokher Seforim; considerably less well known is that at an earlier stage of his life he published a three-volume work on natural history entitled Toledot Ha-Teva (Leipzig 1862, Zhitomir 1866, Vilna 1872). Like Schönhak’s Toledot HaAretz, this was essentially a popularization of scientific works on natural history, but it also included extensive endnotes discussing biblical and Talmudic issues.
|Rabbi Joseph Schwartz|
Finally, the nineteenth century also saw a number of writings by Rabbi Baruch Yaakov Placzek of Brno which dealt with natural history and incorporated insights regarding rabbinic literature. (I wrote about Placzek in a blog post entitled The Most Fascinating Rabbi You've Never Heard Of.)
The near-simultaneous publication of all these books raises a number of questions that I addressed in my study. Why were these books written at this time? Were all of them written for the same reason or set of reasons, or were there different reasons in each case? What were the authors' cultural backgrounds?
The second set of questions that I addressed, potentially connected to the first, relates to the fact that in this period there were also, for the first time, books by Christian authors published on scriptural natural history—and in extremely large numbers. In which ways were the Jewish works on scriptural natural history similar to the Christian works and in which ways did they differ? What might account for the differences?
Third are the questions relating to comparative analysis. In which ways are the various Jewish books similar to one another, and in which ways do they differ? Do they differ in their stated goals? In the way in which the scriptural, talmudic and zoological information is presented? Do these differences reflect differences in the cultural contexts of the authors, differences in the goals of each work, or other factors?
The fourth and final sub-topic of my investigation related to the new frontiers of conflict between traditional rabbinic views and scientific discoveries that were presented in the nineteenth century. Darwin published On The Origin Of Species in 1859, and Jews did not really grapple with the issues that it raised until the twentieth century. However, before Darwin, there were several challenges to traditional Judaism that were posed by natural history. Examples include:
- Scripture classified bats along with birds and whales along with fish. Yet the new zoology posited that bats and whales were mammals, and were to be classified along with cats and cows.
- Scripture describes the hare as chewing its cud. Yet there were those arguing for the errancy of the Bible, based on the discovery that hares do not ruminate.
- Critics of the Bible claimed that it would have been impossible for Samson to have captured three hundred foxes, since these are solitary creatures which are never found in large numbers.
- Regardless of evolutionary explanations for the origins of species, what about the origins of domestic animals? Are dogs descended from wolves? Are cattle descended from aurochsen? The domestication of animals from wild ancestors was a process that was not posited to have taken place in some remote prehistoric past, but rather as part of human history. But if one accepts that domestic animals were created by man, this would appear to raise a problem with Scripture, which states that domestic animals were created by God, at the same time as wild animals.
- Up until the eighteenth century, it was taken as an unquestioned fact, in both rabbinic and non-Jewish circles, that no species ever goes extinct, since God's providence would not allow it (amongst other reasons). In fact, one of the reasons why Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition was to find living mammoths and mastodons. The dodo was the first species which raised a serious problem, since they only lived on one island and there really didn't seem to be any more left. Christians and Jewish scholars alike grappled with this problem.
- The Talmud discusses several different types of spontaneous generation: that of insects from sweat, fruit and water, that of mice from dirt, and that of salamanders from fire. Yet in the nineteenth century, it was becoming increasingly accepted that spontaneous generation does not occur.
The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, and thus you can find some of the answers to the above questions in that book, as well as a history of Biblical and Talmudic zoology. It's much easier to read than my dissertation, and it also has beautiful color photographs!
I hope that my dissertation contributes to the study of intellectual Jewish history. It certainly helped me learn much about the topic that is so central to my life, and I think it makes me better qualified, in all kinds of ways, for my work with The Biblical Museum of Natural History. Thanks again to everyone who helped me!